Closet Cases: Costuming, Lesbian Identities and Desire, Hollywood Cinema and the Motion Picture Production Code

By Fiona Cox.

Published by The International Journal of the Image

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Academic work on costuming in classical Hollywood cinema has consistently noted the ways dress is used to contrast types of femininity. In her article, ‘Costume and Narrative: How Dress Tells the Woman’s Story’, Jane Gaines argues that film costuming during this period typically ‘speaks’ only one thing; the examples she uses are: ‘“I am the vamp” or “I am the straight girl”’. Instead of indicating heterosexuality, Gaines’ article uses ‘straight’ to mean demure or chaste; this article interrogates what happens when the opposite of the ‘straight girl’ is not ‘the vamp’ but the lesbian. The Motion Picture Production Code, enforced in its strictest form between 1934 and 1961, specified that ‘Sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden’. After 1961, ‘sexual aberration could be suggested but not actually spelled out’ (Vito Russo). This article looks at films of the time to examine how, when necessary, Hollywood costumiers used the connotative visual language of clothing to create images that could be read as lesbian without contravening the altering stipulations of the Code. Examples taken from Young Man With a Horn (Michael Curtiz, Warner Bros., USA, 1950); The Children’s Hour (William Wyler, Mirisch Company; Worldwide Productions, USA, 1961); Walk on the Wild Side (Edward Dmytryk, Columbia, USA, 1962), and 7 Women (John Ford, MGM, USA, 1966).

Keywords: Costume/Dress, Classical Hollywood Cinema, Sexuality, Lesbianism, Censorship, Film Studies, Motion Picture Production Code

The International Journal of the Image, Volume 1, Issue 4, pp.43-56. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1011.725KB).

Fiona Cox

Postgraduate Research Fellow, Department of Film and Television Studies, Arts Faculty, University of Warwick, Coventry, UK

Fiona Cox is a Postgraduate Research Fellow in the Film and Television Studies Department at the University of Warwick, UK. Her thesis looks at the costuming of lesbian characters in film and on television and includes an audience research project which aims to analyze how the costuming of lesbian identities in contemporary visual cultures resonates within real communities and contributes to the politics of personal dress-sense.